Tony Jaa — the man touted as the “next Bruce Lee” — wasn’t in regular form. Worldwide audiences were used to seeing Jaa dripping with sweat, his hair slicked and his muscles bubbling to the surface. He was a hero in his native Thailand, revered for his incredible athleticism and on-screen magnetism that had him shooting to the stratosphere of cinema.
But a TV appearance in July of 2008 showed a different side of Jaa. He looked disheveled with his shirt loose, his hair ragged. His eyes, usually glowing with intensity, were regulated to whimpering, wet and bloodshot caverns. The two years it had taken to write, direct, and star in the sequel to Ong-Bak — the film that made him famous — had taken an immense toll on the action star. It wasn’t always so difficult.
The Next Bruce
Growing up, Tony Jaa idolized on-screen action legends like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. He practiced the moves he saw, hoping to emulate the timing and ferocity of those maestros of mayhem. “I’ve been watching films since I was 10,” Jaa said in an interview with IGN. “I started practicing the stunts that they did on my own.”
Martial arts were in Jaa’s blood. His father was a Muay Thai boxer, and by the age of 10, Jaa began training in the same discipline. As his hunger for the arts grew, so did his ambition. By 15, he was being trained by Phanna Rithrikai, a martial arts master and stunt choreographer for some of Thailand’s biggest action epics. In his early 20s, Jaa excelled in all forms of sport — including sword fighting and track and field — at the University of Mahamarakam. He was also getting steady work as a stunt double under the guidance of Phanna. Jaa has four acting credits from 1994 to 2001, even providing some stunt work in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.
Following years of stunts and training, providing his natural talents the nourishment they needed to make him one of the most well-rounded athletes in cinema, the Thai actor finally got his own starring role in 2003’s Ong-Bak. “So, I talked to my master, and also the director, and talked about creating a plot for a movie,” Jaa told IGN. “I had to train as an actor and in choreographing the scenes with the actors who were starring in the movie.”
Combining wireless stunt work ala Jackie Chan (“The market scene was the hardest one to shoot.”), mixed with a confluence of fighting styles ala Bruce Lee, Jaa was immediately being championed as the next big thing in action cinema. “Genius. Perfection. Thai-style fighting with sequences that will make you shout at the screen,” wrote one critic. “Jaa combines speed, strength, and fluidity in a convincing bid to turn wire stunts into yesterday’s fad and return simple physical prowess to the forefront,” said another.
With notoriety came more film offers, commercials, fame, money, and endorsement deals.
In 2005, Jaa released The Protector, a follow-up to his mega-hit Ong-Bak that fell on deaf ears due to its bizarre narrative and shoddy direction. Still, it showcased Jaa’s incredible feats of athleticism and did little to derail his buzz. Going back to the franchise that started the Jaa craze, Ong-Bak 2 would change Jaa’s life forever.
Now a man with a powerful portfolio, Jaa was given buckets of creative control for Ong-Bak 2, a prequel to its predecessor. Jaa had writing, production, directing, and acting credits (despite having little experience in the former), taking the helm from his mentor, Phanna Rithrikai, and previous Ong-Bak director Prachya Pinkaew. The film began its production in October of 2006, and things seemed to be going just fine. It was set for release in December 2008, and at the Cannes Film Festival that year, a promotional video for the prequel was shown that wowed audiences. Then, in July of 2008, Variety broke the story that Jaa had been missing since June, just as the film’s production was entering its final stretch. Very few knew where he was, and the production of Ong-Bak 2 was on hold until its star, writer, and director could be found.
“I guarantee that this is not a case of financial fraud, and I have no intention of pursuing any legal action against him,” said a representative of the film’s production studio. “We’re running behind schedule, and some of our international contracts have been cancelled because of that. I know he loves this film very much, so I just want him to finish the film because there’s only a little work left.”
The film was not only running behind schedule, but it ran out of money. Jaa had spent $7.8 million, and the project still had more work that needed to be completed. He was reported to have been paying the film’s crew out of his own pocket until he no longer could even pay his own utilities at home. The stress of the budgetary and scheduling issues, combined with his first time at the helm of a film, had caused the rising star to crash. Rittikrai was hired to come in and finish the movie with the existing footage and all control was taken from Jaa.
In July of 2008, Jaa resurfaced on a TV talk show, crying. “I’m shocked at what happened,” said Jaa. “I didn’t receive 250 million baht ($7.5 million). There must be a misunderstanding over the number and I have proof of all my spending. There are so many problems. I went away to focus on the artistic angle of the film. I make this film not with the number and figures in mind, but for its artistic quality. I invest my effort in it with almost spiritual devotion.”
Ong-Bak 2 (2008) was released in two parts in 2008 and 2010 in order to spread the losses that were incurred. With The Weinstein Co. backing out of their original distribution deal, and the two films suffering in quality, they bombed. By the end of 2010, Jaa had reportedly quit the film business to become a buddhist monk.
Stepping out of the shadows for the first time in three years, Tony Jaa announced a comeback campaign in 2013, with the sequel to The Protector. Infused with more American influences — RZA co-starred — the film did little to reinstate Jaa’s once formidable reputation as the next Bruce Lee. But it did give Jaa his confidence back. At 39 years of age, Jaa may not be the “next big thing” in action cinema these days, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.
This April, he stars in the seventh installment of the Fast and Furious series, Furious 7. It’s a big step in the right direction for Jaa, and rightfully his biggest showcase to date. There will never be another Bruce Lee — that much we can agree on, and the truth of Jaa’s absence seems to be more rooted in a brief hiatus rather than black magic and bankruptcy. Sometimes it’s best to step back and reassess. The stress of putting a successful film franchise on his shoulders has subsided, and Jaa is back to having fun and kicking ass. Because, if you’re not having fun… what’s the point?